NOISE IN THE VOID
1969: The Black Box of Conceptual Art University of Sydney, War Memorial Art Gallery, until October 25
THE first work you encounter in this reconstruction of Australia’s first conceptual art exhibition — Burn Cutforth Ramsden at Pinacotheca gallery in Melbourne in 1969 — is an aerial photograph of a nondescript city block accompanied by its precise location expressed as co-ordinates of longitude and latitude. These tell us that we are in New York, or more exactly in Brooklyn. In the boom years of large-scale abstraction, widely promoted as the consummation of the history of painting, this small and visually unassuming piece must have seemed even more surprising than it does today.
It is, after all, when sailing on the open sea, far from land, that it is customary to express location in these terms. For an Australian, incidentally, such co-ordinates have a particular significance, as it was the invention of an accurate marine chronometer in the 18th century that made the exact calculation of longitude possible and allowed Cook to map first the Sandwich Islands and then the east coast of Australia with such accuracy.
In any case, in a city we assume it is sufficient to tell people we are near the corner of one street and another. We don’t need to refer to a universal geographical system because we can rely on a local and familiar set of lines in the built environment; we don’t have to describe location within the order of nature because it is easier to describe it within the structures produced by culture.
To record where we are in this accurate, objective but cumbersome and not readily intelligible manner is in effect to behave as though the city and its streets did not exist; as though the urban fabric had disappeared and left in its place a desert. It is to suggest, in other words, that the order of culture that is embodied in the structure of the city is either nonexistent or has become unreliable as a guide and system of reference.
One thinks of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s image of culture in the modern world as the fragments of a vessel to which a shipwrecked man clings as he is carried by the ocean currents — or of TS Eliot’s words at the end of The Waste Land: ‘‘ these fragments I have shored against my ruins’’. But in the post-war years culture seemed to be not merely ruined and fragmentary, but poisoned by the new industries of commercial entertainment and advertising.
Clement Greenberg had already identified this problem in a famous essay, Avant-garde and Kitsch (1939), in which he argued the avant-garde was the legitimate heir to the tradition of high art, but was forced into more recondite territory by the inexorable advance of kitsch into areas formerly occupied by serious art. But Greenberg was the most prominent supporter of the abstract expressionist style — ‘‘ American-style painting’’ — that had swept the world in the post-war decades and had by now become not only an official style but an investment commodity.
Abstract expressionism was not the consummation of the art of painting, but it was the climax of the modernist myths of new beginnings, the erasure of history and memory, absolute originality and direct expression. Ever-larger canvasses were brushed, stained or dribbled with paint; the immediacy of the substance and the mark of the artist’s gesture were taken as hallmarks of authenticity — itself an important concern in the aesthetic as in the moral thinking of those years.
In stark opposition to the claims of such work, Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting (1967-68) consists of a black square, again juxtaposed with a message: ‘‘ The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist.’’ The inscription makes it clear that we are not
to think of this in the same way as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), which is concerned with minimal visual experience. Ramsden’s black surface is not something to be looked at and pondered as a visual object: it is not presented as a painting in itself, but an obstacle to visibility, implicitly claiming to be covering over a real or putatively authentic painting that lies underneath.
Other pieces extend the critique from works of art to a broader consideration of language and systems of meaning — indeed Ian Burn and Ramsden were affiliated with the Art & Language group. Words and ideas were their real interests, even if they were never able to produce works as completely disembodied as is implied by their sometimes convoluted texts, falling into incomprehensibility in their very attempts to articulate their procedures in absolutely objective and dispassionate terms.
Thus Burn’s Three Descriptions (1968) still requires three grey panels and neatly stencilled lettering to achieve its effect, for the conceptual idea is inseparable from the solid materiality that is the subject of the work. The three panels are inscribed with words that attempt to describe them, three rows on each panel, and the point is simply that each attempt at characterising the same very minimal object, something indeed with apparently hardly any properties worthy of note, is nonetheless entirely different — one being ‘‘ Flat panel / Slightly wider than high / Painted grey’’, another offering precise measurements, and the last one a series of possible subjective evaluations of the impassive surface.
More purely verbal in effect is Ramsden’s Six Negatives (1968-69), which actually consists of eight sheets photographed from a thesaurus and reproduced in negative so that the words appear in white against a black background. What is particularly interesting about this work is that it is pages of antonyms that have been copied, and in each case the positive terms have been blacked out, so that we are left to infer from the antonyms what the corresponding originals might have been.
The work is thus doubly a negative, both visually and semantically, and at the same time hints at questions about whether double negatives equate to a positive — is not-bad the same as good, for example — as well as whether all or many words really have adequate opposites, even if the mind is prone to thinking in binary terms.
Each case, indeed, seems to raise its own collection of difficulties as soon as we stop to think about it carefully. What is the opposite of woman? Clearly, within the rules of the game, man, but equally clearly not in the same sense that the opposite of end must be beginning; and here too the thesaurus recognises ambiguity by including the term middle, which, unlike the polar terms beginning and end, has no clear opposite.
What is the opposite of gluttony? Presumably temperance, a term almost forgotten in its original sense and associated today only with the consumption of alcohol and then mistakenly with abstention instead of moderation. With pain we seem to be on safer ground (it must be pleasure, although again the simple answer raises questions) and in the case of wrong, it must be right, although there is a world of difference between factual and moral right and wrong. Whatever can the opposite of lubrication be? And some terms, such as loss, are so multifarious in their meanings that it is only the fact that the thesaurus is arranged by themes that allows us to restrict the meaning in this case to the category of property, and thus to conclude the answer must be profit or gain.
These conceptual games may appear trivial, but their interest consists in drawing our attention to things we may have noticed vaguely in passing but never contemplated in any sustained way. And they are questions whose cogency also belongs to its time, to the time of a cultural shipwreck when the commercial kitsch that Greenberg wrote of was spreading like a malignant growth, and when language in particular, which had been systematically abused already by totalitarian regimes across the world, was now being corrupted by the mass media and advertising industries of the Western world, with America, the home of these new industries, in the lead.
These works thus evoke a cultural environment in which the corruption of consumer culture has reached into the level of high art and the very language with which we articulate a critique of the situation. Indeed much of the work ultimately is deeply pessimistic, none more overtly so than Ramsden’s Null Piece (1969), which consists of a blank page accompanied by a paragraph that ties itself in something of a knot in its attempts to suggest the blank page both is and is not a work in any sense readily grasped by the mind — whether formal or conceptual.
One senses here a tacit confession — or perhaps rather a profession — of nihilism, and perhaps the reason that Burn later said that conceptualism had failed. In reality all the experimental movements of modernism are ultimately failures, in the sense that they do not result in an idiom that can continue to be practised but constitute a series of brilliant and unrepeatable moments. As we have seen before, it is an absurdity to attempt to make cubist, fauvist, dada or surrealist works today.
If there is any suggestion of something more positive, beyond the wreck of contemporary culture, it is perhaps in the glimpse of nature in Roger Cutforth’s Noon-Time Piece, consisting of a series of photographs of the sky taken daily at noon during the course of April 1969 — a calendar for the month is exhibited alongside the photographs, each day struck off as the corresponding photograph is taken. Above the same city on which we looked down in the first piece discussed above, the sky registers the constantly changing face of nature in the northern spring.
Less obvious but even more interesting is the case of Burn’s photocopier works, in which sheets of paper have been recopied in succession so initially minute specks or marks are multiplied and intensified: in the terminology of the information theory that arose after the war, in part out of the experience of the practical problems of military radio transmission, we have here an instance of communication involving no signal content but a gradual accumulation of the random effects that arise in transmission and which are called noise.
These works made of nothing but transmission noise could be interpreted as an extreme expression of nihilism, but here it is also fascinating to see something being generated literally out of nothing. The fact that the cloud of specks ends up looking disconcertingly like the starry heavens does not mean Burn was a mystic in disguise, but it does recall something like Parmenides’ notoriously difficult doctrine that nothing cannot exist.